Ask me what the best superhero film is and I’d not hesitate to answer. The Dark Knight. A modern masterpiece of blockbuster filmmaking that, even ten years later, still feels shockingly unique and unparalleled in the genre.
Given that I’m hardly alone in this opinion, it got me thinking, what exactly makes The Dark Knight so damn good?
And, to answer this, I’m going to take for granted a lot of things that most of us agree on – Nolan is an incredible director, Pfister’s cinematography is beautiful, the acting is uniformly brilliant and the action sequences are spectacular – and answer the question with one word: ideas.
The Dark Knight is a movie about ideological conflict. It’s political. It’s philosophical. Whether we recognise it or not, that’s what makes it so compelling.
But to begin to break down these ideas, we need to address the elephant in the room when talking about what makes this movie work. We need to first look at the iconic character who drives the philosophical discussion of the film…
The combination of a truly incredible performance by Heath Ledger supported by a great script made The Joker an all-time great screen villain. Did you know, though, The Joker is only in 33 minutes of The Dark Knight, a movie that is over two-and-a-half hours long? It’s a testament to both Heath Ledger and the character that his presence is felt in every scene and dominates our memories of the movie.
The Joker is a huge part of what makes The Dark Knight work, so we need to determine exactly why he is such an incredible villain to understand how he contributes to the film as a whole.
He’s not a typical Nolan character
Christopher Nolan is a genius, there can be no doubt of that, but his work often feels slightly detached from humanity. I don’t mean this in a Ridley Scott ‘Alien Covenant’ kind of way, where the characters are just things to inflict suffering on dispassionately, but in how Christopher Nolan characters tend to speak and behave.
There are not many of the traits we’d necessarily recognise as human – humour, flirting, warmth – and instead the characters tend to speak in the same cerebral way Nolan writes and directs. Often they’re sexless characters who regularly articulate complex philosophical worldviews as if in place of discussing the weather. It’s not problematic, it’s more a stylistic leaning, but it’s certainly not naturalistic.
This can make Nolan’s work feel a little sterile – emotionless is perhaps too strong a word (especially after Dunkirk, which hits pretty hard), but certainly restrained.
So when The Joker walks into this ordered Nolan movie with his crumbling clown make-up and his purple coat, he feels from another universe entirely. The Joker isn’t restrained – he tells jokes, he plays to the room, he performs violent magic tricks. In most movies, when The Joker walks into a party and acknowledges Rachel Dawes with ‘why hello, beautiful’ while adjusting his hair, the moment would be creepy. But in a sexless Nolan movie, The Joker’s sexual recognition feels like an act of anarchic defiance itself. The character’s theatrical demeanour and penchant for chaos feels like it’s tearing apart Nolan’s sterile world at the seams.
Which is not to say The Joker is entirely without Nolan quirks. He certainly philosophises, a lot in fact, and his very existence is more as pure ideological force than actual character. But the tussling of the theatrical clown monster with Nolan’s preference for restrained cerebral characters makes for a truly magnificent concoction.
The Joker is a terrorist
The Joker isn’t a typical supervillain. In him we see not a cartoon caricature of evil but a threat that’s very recognisable. He’s not an alien trying to blow the world up, he’s a terrorist trying to provoke fear. He doesn’t use magic MacGuffins to achieve his aims, he uses bombs, knives and hostage videos.
In this way The Dark Knight is very much a post-9/11 blockbuster. It taps into 21st Century fears of the destructive force of an enemy who cannot be understood or reasoned with, an enemy that can strike at any moment and slaughters indifferently.
‘Some men just want to watch the world burn’ Alfred warns a Bruce Wayne who is taken aback by a villain with seemingly no motivation. The Joker himself actively mocks the idea that he can be explained away by telling two different tragic origin stories. When we come onto the politics of this movie, this might well be part of the reason some interpret it as ‘right-wing’ – to perceive terrorism as a threat that is created and sustained in a vacuum is a slightly problematic idea – but for now let’s just acknowledge how strikingly that chord chimes with audiences of the movie.
The Joker is an existential threat
But let’s get onto the meat of what The Joker represents. Moral Nihilism. He calls society’s morality a ‘bad joke’ and tells Batman he’s not a monster, he’s just ahead of the curve.
The Joker describes himself as an ‘agent of chaos’, a dog chasing cars who wouldn’t have a clue what to do if he caught one. Alfred compares him to thieves who steal for the sake of stealing.
What’s interesting though is something much more insidious still lies at the heart of what motivates The Joker. He’s not merely interested in causing chaos, he’s determined in proving that deep down everyone is as ugly as he is. It’s best summed up when he tells Batman:
‘They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these… these civilized people, they’ll eat each other.’
Every course of action he takes is aimed at proving just that. He manages to rile an angry mob into trying to take the life of an innocent man, he pits two ferries against each, hoping one would blow up the other. In Harvey Dent, the face of justice, he sees a target to corrupt. With Batman, a man who already has shaky moral foundations, he desperately wants him to break his one rule – not killing. To The Joker, any moral code is an illusion that needs to be broken.
In our darkest thoughts, it’s hard not to have a nagging doubt that maybe The Joker has a point. Maybe our morality is something of a lie, ready to be dropped the moment it’s no longer expedient. This is what makes him such a terrifying threat. He’s not trying to destroy Gotham as a physical place, he’s trying to destroy Gotham’s soul. He’s making a horrifyingly compelling case for Moral Nihilism, and is inviting the audience to agree with him.
To the extent The Joker actually acknowledges this aim, and to what extent he really does just see himself as an agent of chaos, inadvertently gives layers of psychological depth to the character. He very much is aware he’s playing the role of ‘villain’ in the narrative, but only because it’s a narrative he ultimately rejects.
The film’s politics – Is the movie a right-wing allegory?
So having established what makes The Joker so special, let’s glance at the politics of The Dark Knight.
Batman, when taken seriously, is actually a surprisingly problematic character. He’s a billionaire who spends his time acting as a vigilante, beating up the poorest in society. Unlike Superman or Captain America, he symbolises less something that is to inspire and more something that is to be feared. If you’re a criminal, he’ll get you, even if the law can’t.
It’s little wonder, then, that accusations of the mythology being a ‘right-wing power fantasy’ have been levelled. Further still, there are those who see The Dark Knight as a whole as ‘right-wing’.
If The Joker represents the terrorist threat, then does Batman represent the Bush administration going above and beyond to heroically put an end to terrorism, when the law, with its hands tied, cannot? Does Batman’s use of the phone system at the end (which spies on every Gotham citizen) represent the necessary temporary curtailing of civil liberties until the terrorist threat is neutralised?
Whilst I certainly appreciate this reading, I’m not entirely convinced by it. In fact, I’m not sure the film has a coherent political vision at all. Instead, quite wisely in my opinion, it opts more to ask questions rather than provide easy answers.
What’s certain is the whole trilogy sees the criminal justice system as flawed. There’s too much corruption and Batman is seen as kickstarting the cleaning up process. This is still a problematic stance but the film fully acknowledges that. Speaking in relation to Batman, Harvey Dent says:
‘When their enemies were at the gates, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered a public service.’
This is then immediately corrected by Rachel, his girlfriend, who reminds him that the last person they appointed to protect was Caesar and he never gave up his power. Whether this is historically accurate is beside the point, the key is the film is wrestling with how it perceives Batman.
And, for the remainder of the movie, Bruce is hoping to let Harvey Dent, who represents the just rule of law, take over so he can retire Batman. Of course things don’t go to plan, and Harvey Dent ends up corrupted by The Joker’s actions.
Batman knows how important Harvey Dent and the rule of law is, however, and decides to take responsibility for Harvey’s actions so the people can still believe in him. This echoes ‘The Noble Lie’ found in the works of Plato’s ‘The Republic’ – a myth or untruth that is propagated for social harmony. Is that then the film’s message? That the criminal justice system is unfit for purpose but we need to believe in it anyway?
Well that would be odd, because if the sequel ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ has anything to say (and, frankly, it doesn’t say nearly enough for my liking), it’s too refute the idea of The Noble Lie. In that movie the untruths have rotted away at everything and the truth is eventually outed.
This ultimately reinforces my sense that Nolan doesn’t have a grand political vision, he’s just wrestling with these questions in the confines of a superhero movie. The fact it asks these questions at all, however, is remarkable.
The film’s philosophy – Is the movie nihilistic?
Much more interesting to me than the politics of the movie is the film’s philosophical conflict. I already highlighted above how I think The Joker is the physical manifestation of Moral Nihilism, which makes Batman’s position representative of Moral Objectivism – there really is such a thing as morality that exists independently of our social structure.
What’s shocking is The Dark Knight goes some way in showing that The Joker really does have a point (this movie has balls – what other superhero movie would blow up the love interest halfway through?!) People do call for Batman to reveal himself, they do attempt to kill the innocent man when a hospital is threatened, Dent is shown to be corruptible etc. So does this indicate the movie ultimately sides with The Joker?
I don’t think so, and that’s thanks to the ferry scene. One of the biggest criticisms of recent blockbusters, and especially Marvel superhero movies, is that no-matter what themes the films are exploring, they’re usually side-lined or forgotten entirely for a big punch-up in the third act. This is not the case with The Dark Knight. Until the very end the film stays focused on its themes with razor sharp precision.
In the ferry scene, The Joker offers two ferries (one carrying convicts, the other civilians) a choice – blow up the other ferry and live, or he’ll detonate both ferries. In The Joker’s mind it’s obvious that, out of fear, one of the ferries will blow up the other. What happens, however, offers us a glimmer of optimism. On the ship full of convicts, one of the prisoners tosses the detonator out of the window, taking the choice out of their hands. On the ship of civilians, they take a vote. Although they vote overwhelmingly to detonate the other ferry, none of them actually wants to be the one to do it. And so both ferries accept their fate. They’re going to be blown up because neither group is willing to murder.
On top of that, Batman never does break his rule. Not only does he not kill The Joker, he actively catches him when he falls out of the building. As The Joker dangles upside down, lost in his own madness, he says ‘You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you?’ It’s a brief and rare admission of partial defeat.
That’s not to say everything else in the film is undone. Out of fear and loss, a lot of Gotham has now done some incredibly shitty things. But by the actions of those on the ferries and Batman himself, we’re offered a reason not to entirely despair.
The legacy of The Dark Knight
Many movies have tried to capture what makes The Dark Knight so special but have failed. Some have tried to mimic the serious tone but forgotten to actually have anything to say (I’d go so far as to suggest this is even true of The Dark Knight Rises), whilst others have produced pretentious pseudo-philosophical movies that are a chore to sit through (Batman V Superman!)
The Dark Knight really does feel like lightening in a bottle, an example of everything coming together to produce a rare modern classic. It stands atop the superhero heap not because it’s serious or tries to treat comic books as ‘adult’ (in fact I would say most films should avoid that.) No, it stands proud because it’s about ideological conflict and what it means to be human, and that will always resonate no matter how it is packaged – even if the main character insists on dressing up like a bat!